Crime - Sacto 911

Judge may allow lawsuit to proceed over California inmate who died after being pepper-sprayed

Steve and Elaine Duran show off family photo albums of son Joseph Duran in their Whittier home in January 2014.
Steve and Elaine Duran show off family photo albums of son Joseph Duran in their Whittier home in January 2014. Sacramento Bee

State corrections officials have failed to rid themselves of a civil rights lawsuit over the death of a mentally ill inmate who breathed through a tube and was pepper-sprayed in his face at point blank range.

In a 29-page order issued Monday, U.S. District Judge Troy L. Nunley dismissed most of the complaint, filed last year on behalf of Joseph Duran’s parents. He ruled that it failed in some respects to establish standing on the part of the parents to sue, and failed in other respects to provide a sufficient legal basis for the claims.

But rather than dismissing the suit permanently as was sought by the corrections officials, the judge allowed plaintiffs’ attorney Stewart Katz to cure the problems with a revised complaint by Dec. 28.

If some or all of the claims in the amended complaint meet the legal standards set out by Nunley, the lawsuit will proceed. The amended complaint is almost certain to draw another motion to dismiss from the prison officials on legal grounds.

The circumstances of Duran’s death in September 2013 forced widespread reforms of how mentally ill inmates are treated in the state’s sprawling prison system.

Duran, a 35-year-old career criminal, died at Ione’s Mule Creek State Prison after guards doused him with pepper spray for refusing to remove his hands from his cell door’s food port.

He was left in his cell overnight without medical attention, despite doctors’ orders following the spraying to remove him from the cell and clean off the chemical. He had jerked the breathing tube out of his throat and was found dead the next morning.

His death was ruled a suicide by the Amador County coroner, and his body was transported to the Casa Bonita Funeral Home in Stockton, where it was cremated and the ashes scattered at sea without his parents being notified of his death.

Steven and Elaine Duran sued a long list of correctional officers, health care providers employed by the prison system, the Amador County coroner and the Stockton funeral home over their son’s death and the failure to notify them. The judge’s order Monday found that most of the complaints’ elements may be pursued if Katz is able to satisfy Nunley with an amended document.

Lawyers for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation argued the standing issue and, in addition, insisted the complaint lacked enough legal substance to maintain the litigation past this initial stage. A motion to dismiss is based solely on legal issues, as opposed to a mix of factual and legal issues that support a summary judgment motion.

Katz said Monday he will file an amended complaint within the allotted three weeks mandated by Nunley.

State corrections officials declined to comment on Monday’s order.

Duran’s parents learned that he had died in custody when they were contacted four months later by a Sacramento Bee reporter preparing a story about the death.

Among the defendants Nunley looked at with a critical eye is Corrections staff psychiatrist Dr. Karuna Anand. The judge noted that she ordered Duran placed on suicide watch the night he died and, after he continued to show signs of paranoia and fear of the guards, she renewed the order and directed that Duran be monitored around the clock.

“Subsequently, Dr. Anand countermanded the order for continued suicide watch before it went into effect,” Nunley wrote. “Instead, Dr. Anand placed Duran on ‘violence precaution,’ ” a term that the complaint says is not included in any prison policies.

“Dr. Anand did not document any clinical rationale for discontinuing suicide precautions for Duran nor did she examine Duran or receive a report that his condition had improved,” the judge wrote. “As a result of being taken off suicide precautions, Duran was no longer monitored every 15 minutes.”

Nunley found “a reasonable inference Dr. Anand possessed the requisite state of mind for deliberate indifference” when she removed Duran from suicide watch.

Duran was pepper-sprayed at about 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 6, 2013. After a nurse called Anand to report the incident, Anand and another physician ordered Duran pulled from his cell and cleaned up. Guards refused, despite evidence Duran was having trouble breathing. He died sometime between then and the next morning.

The complaint was filed in September 2014 and, as with most civil lawsuits, it is expected to go forward slowly, unless a settlement is reached.

Duran’s death spawned reforms, including new restrictions on when pepper spray and other uses of force may be deployed against mentally ill inmates.

The state’s failure to locate his parents before his body was cremated also prompted corrections officials to revise their notification policies, ordering use of inmate visitor logs, personal property found in cells, and reviews of social media to locate relatives.

In addition, corrections officials launched a series of internal investigations into the incident, including three involving alleged “dishonesty” by guards, according to internal corrections documents obtained by The Bee.

Sam Stanton: 916-321-1091, @StantonSam